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Very few people know that Madame, the famous Russian ballerina, visited our island from April to September 1917. But my husband, Juan Anduce, and I remembered the time vividly. A few weeks ago, on April 23, 1932, Madame lay dying in an obscure hotel in Amsterdam, asking for her swan costume. "Play the last measure softly," she whispered to the friends who stood around her, the newspaper headlines quoted. No sooner did she pass away, as she lay still warm in her coffin, than her husband, Victor Dandré, was speeding toward London in search of the marriage license which would assure him of his inheritance: magnificent Ivy House, the mansion surrounded by English gardens and a lake full of swans that once belonged to the painter William Turner and which Madame had purchased with her savings. But I knew he'd never find it. I had destroyed the license, a yellowed parchment written in Cyrillic characters, years before. When I read the article I was overwhelmed with recollections. I have lived for fifteen years on this island, almost half as long as I lived in Russia. I still love the color red, as all Russians do—russ, after all, means red, something few people realize because it's so obvious—but my Russian heart is beginning to feel stifled. Incredibly enough, I am growing tired of this island's splendid sun and I miss winter. I would give anything to hear its silence, the stillness that precedes the blizzard, oblivion's snowflakes sifting quietly over my graying head.
When my husband, Juan, was still alive, I had very little time to brood about these things because we had the ballet school and needed to keep our students whirling like tops in the studio we built together in San Juan. It was on the second floor of an Old house, with several wrought-iron balconies that opened onto the shady Plaza de Armas.
The academy was Madame's gift to us when she left the island. The training is difficult and very demanding, but its benefits are countless. It not only gives young men and women the opportunity to find jobs as dancers; it also gives them self-respect and a sense of who they are. This was Madame's original wish, and I have done my utmost to put it into effect.
Juan died of a punctured appendix a few months ago and now I live alone. Fortunately, I still have my studio. But when I close the door after the day's last student has left, I plunge into despair. Time erases everything and at the end we are left with nothing. I refuse to become a ghost, a woman without a country, without love and without memories, clutching at my own shadow.
I was thirty-nine years old when I made the decision to leave Madame's company when she traveled to South America. I stayed behind on this island, where I married Juan Anduce, the cobbler hired to repair the dancers' slippers when our ballet company was stranded here during the Great War. For three months we were virtual prisoners; it was a nightmare for all of us. The company's ballerinas wore out dozens of slippers each week and it was impossible to have new ones delivered during our tour because of the German submarines. So Madame had to improvise. That's when Juan Anduce, my future husband, turned up, his green eyes gleaming with the island's lushness and a mischievous smile on his face.
I had met Madame a number of years earlier, in St. Petersburg. I was young and naive, and one day I went to her apartment on Kolomenskaya Street and asked if she would take me on as a private student. Madame had only recently graduated from the Maryinsky Imperial Ballet School and gave classes at home to a small group of girls to supplement her income. It was from this group that she eventually picked the dancers that formed her company, later taking them on short tours on the Continent when war was about to break out in Russia. I joined the flock of young women and accompanied Madame from Russia to the Baltic when I was nineteen. From there we toured many European countries, until one day we sailed to the United States. Many of our relatives in Russia perished during those years, when the White and Red Armies were grappling in mortal combat along a frontier thousands of miles long. Madame saved us from disaster.
Like the rest of the girls in our company, I could have kissed the ground my mistress walked on, dragged myself over a bed of hot coals or needles of ice just to be near her. Those were anguished years, during which we, her followers, spent many sleepless nights worrying about the future. But Madame seemed to glide serenely over the troubled waters of her age: the Russian Revolution, the deaths of millions of her countrymen, even the suffering of this small island which she visited for a short time and to which she could have been indifferent, yet wasn't. It was hard not to revere her if you ever saw her dance; her Odile in Swan Lake and her Aurora in Sleeping Beauty were perfect. But our group held her in special esteem, because she always kept her promises.
Madame and I have known each other from way back. I'm the daughter of a Russian peasant from Minsk who used to beat me with a poplar branch every time he got drunk. I survived thanks to a traveling merchant who went by the house one afternoon and saw him beat me. He punched Mastovsky on the chin and took me to live with his own family in St. Petersburg. He had a brother named Vassily who was a ballet master. He came by the house one day and suggested I take classes with him. Of course I was thrilled to do so. A few years went by and I was perfectly happy, but when I turned sixteen, the merchant raped me and began to beat me. Eventually I went to Madame's apartment and knocked on her door. It was 1897 and Madame had just opened a small ballet school at home, and she took in private pupils. I had a strong, slender body, like the peasants of Belarus usually do. Madame took me in as a maid, and later decided to continue my training.
Like so many of the young dancers who joined Madame's school, I was a fanatical admirer of the ballerina's art. Since I didn't have the training, I wasn't a good enough dancer to be a soloist, so I danced in the chorus. I was tall and lanky then, not fat and sluggish like I am now, wearing muumuus all the time to conceal my size. Because of my rawboned strength, I always danced at the tail end of the line of girls, always near the wings so I could dart off the stage to help Madame change into one of her costumes, or to help the stagehands out. I admit I was never attractive. I looked a bit like a stork, with a long nose and quick-darting eyes which Madame said were always suspiciously assessing my surroundings.
During our free time I washed and ironed Madame's clothes, made her bed, helped dress her, and brushed and tidied up her hair with the silver swan brush and comb one of her admirers had given her, which were always kept in their own leather case. Little by little I became my mistress's confidante.
I knew more about Madame than anyone else in the company: who her biological father was, for example, and why Madame would get so upset if anyone mentioned Matvey Federov, the reserve officer who had married her mother, Lyubovna Fedorovna, and who was killed in the war when Madame was only two years old. I knew all of her secrets: how Madame managed to enter the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg, why she married Victor Dandré, a con man and a scoundrel, and why she had stayed with him for so many years.
This knowledge gave me power, and the other dancers respected me for it. I was Madame's right hand, the keeper of her flame. The desire for something we do not have is what makes us struggle to better ourselves, as our priest in Minsk used to say.
One day Madame and I made a pact: "I'll take care of you and you take care of me," she said. I naturally agreed. Anyone who knows something about love knows it's the lover, rather than the beloved, who is the stronger, and my love for Madame made me as solid as a rock.CHAPTER 2
Madame embarked on her first South American tour with her company, of which I was part, on February 10, 1917. Victor Dandré, Madame's husband and manager, had persuaded her to take this trip while we were still performing in New York. During our tour of the United States we visited 140 cities in seven months. And yet we were hardly tired, fueled by the excitement and the adrenaline of success. None of us would have guessed the anguish that lay ahead of us.
There was an economic boom in Argentina because of the war, and Mr. Dandré was sure a pot of gold awaited us at the southernmost tip of the continent. He was as eager to reach it as a bear that smells honey. The United States had just entered the war on the side of the Allies, and German submarines now made the Atlantic crossing almost impossible so we couldn't return to Europe, no matter how homesick we felt. Very few ships managed to get through; most ended up at the bottom of the ocean. No one knew how long the war would last, and we couldn't just sit around waiting for it to end, Mr. Dandré told us. So he pointed out Cuba to us on the map and made plans for the company to ship out, making this island our first stop en route to South America.
Madame had anticipated the tour with grand illusions. She was a pacifist like the great Vaslav Nibinsky, who was also crossing the Atlantic by steamer on a tour headed for South America. Madame wasn't at all keen on the United States entering the conflict. She had gone to Germany several times and had danced for the kaiser just before the war broke out; she saw what the German troops were like up close, and the carnage they were capable of. In fact, that was one of the reasons she decided to make the tour of South America, because several nations there—including Argentina and Brazil—remained neutral and wanted no part in the bloody European conflict.
On the other hand, Spanish music and Spanish ballets in her repertoire were always some of Madame's favorites: Paquita, for example, or Don Quijote, during which she could flash the fire of her flint-dark eyes at the audience and hide a mischievous smile behind her sequined fan. That was Madame for you. She could become whatever she wanted when she danced—which was very handy when she mimed passionate loves.
Mr. Dandré set up a deal with Adolfo Bracale, the Italian impresario who had staked out the Caribbean as his private territory, bringing all sorts of artists here who wanted to make themselves known. Enrico Caruso, Hipólito Lázaro, Amelita Galli-Curchi, Sarah Bernhardt all sailed down the Caribbean at some point or another, looking for the goose with the golden egg and more often than not ending up omelets themselves because of Bracale's wheelings and dealings. He was famous for keeping more than half the money the agents put up, with the promise that he would send it later on to the performers; and then he never did. But he had an eye for genius, and many of the artists he brought to the area, often just beginning to bloom, went on to become international sensations. Madame, of course, was one of them. But she was never taken advantage of because of Mr. Dandré. Mr. Dandré was tough, and he oversaw all of her affairs.
At that time Cuba was at the crossroads of the Americas. Travel by boat was imperative if you wanted to reach South America, and there was neither rail nor road between New York and Buenos Aires. Businessmen sailed down the Caribbean on their way to their various destinations—Curaçao, Caracas, Panama—inevitably stopping at La Habana where ships took on coal. Karajaieff, Algeranoff, and other Russian friends of Madame who had fled the revolution and had already found refuge in New York knew Bracale, and cautioned her that he was secretly related to the Mafia, although no one was able to prove it. But as usual, Madame trusted Mr. Dandré blindly and agreed to go along with his plan. She told Lyubovna Federovna and me to pack her clothes and toiletries: her silk georgette nightgowns; her L'Heure Bleue and Narcisse Noir perfume bottles; the silver swan hand mirror, brush, and comb; and in less than a week we were ready to leave.
New York was a heady experience. Madame danced every night to enormous crowds at the Hippodrome, throwing all her previous scruples about Imperial Russian ballerinas appearing before rowdy vaudeville audiences to the winds. People needed to be happy and to forget about the Marne and Verdun, about the horrors of trench warfare and poison gas. Three months later, the United States would begin to ship soldiers to the front, and its youth would become cannon fodder. But no one could foresee the impending tragedy.
We sailed to Cuba full of expectations, sure that the presentations of Giselle and Coppélia at Teatro Nacional would be a huge success. Cuba was in the news then as the second greatest sugar-producing country in the world, and La Habana's bourgeoisie was said to be enormously rich. We needed desperately to send money home to our families. That winter in St. Petersburg was one of the worst in history: millions of people were starving and dying of the cold. Letters—when they got to us—told how people were burning fences and lampposts, and using the furniture in their homes as kindling. The money we sent was taken by friends to the Belgian or Swiss borders so that a few of our relatives, after endless struggles, were able to escape and cross over.
Madame, on the other hand, had heard that the Cuban capital was very chic. She ordered a completely new wardrobe made in New York for her dancers, as well as new scenery. Madame was a professional artist; once she signed a contract, she delivered the best performance she was capable of, no matter what sacrifice it meant. The hold of the S.S. Courbelo carried dozens of decorated flats, twenty hat boxes full of wide-brimmed pamelas wrapped in clouds of gauze and adorned with silk blossoms, and 194 trunks holding three hundred lace and velvet costumes glimmering with sequins. "She's the czar's ballerina," the customs inspectors in New York would say, nodding to each other knowingly, convinced the costumes all belonged to Madame herself. Little did they know what the real story was! Madame probably would have stayed in Russia if it hadn't been for Mr. Dandré. She was in London after a tour of the Baltic cities when Mr. Dandré, who was a member of the Duma (the Russian elective legislative assembly, or lower house of parliament) and served in several municipal commissions which allocated city funds, was caught stealing the czar's rubles. He was thrown unceremoniously in jail. Madame bailed him out, but he could never go back to Russia.
After the first performance, when Cuba's upper crust turned out in full force to see Madame dance, La Habana's impressive Teatro Nacional remained discouragingly empty. Political turmoil was rampant on the island, and people were afraid to go out after dark; the city's streets were deserted, except for President Garcia Menocal's hoodlums firing random shots from racing black Packards in the middle of the night. The threatening atmosphere reminded us of St. Petersburg during the recent uprisings. At night we could hardly sleep.
Madame, as usual, had spent a fortune before we shipped out of New York—a good part of her earnings during her successful tour of the United States—but not on herself. She would do anything to help her dancers feel confident on stage, and a magnificent costume was a good start. Her extravagance put the rest of us on a tight budget: we weren't living from hand to mouth as we would be later in Puerto Rico, but Mr. Dandré counted every penny we spent.
Our tour was financed in advance by Max Rabinoff, a millionaire impresario from New York who was a friend of Bracale's, and at this point his losses exceeded $150,000. In New York, headlines appeared in the press accusing Madame of dancing away fifty thousand dollars, which was really spent on our costumes and stage decors bound for Cuba. Apparently Mr. Rabinoff was in the middle of a divorce, and the money he lent Dandré had belonged to his wife, who had inherited it from her family. She filed suit in court, but the Cuban fiasco made it impossible for Dandré to return any of it. That's when we received the first of several anonymous threats, telling us that if we didn't pay up, our lives would be in danger.
Excerpted from Flight of the Swan by Rosario Ferré. Copyright © 2001 Rosario Ferré. Excerpted by permission of Open Road Integrated Media, Inc..
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